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Will Bristol's top clubs ever be revived?

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: November 10, 2012

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Bristol goes to the polls next Thursday to directly elect a mayor for the first time. But, on the basis of the past few weeks, perhaps the city would be better served by appointing an elected sports minister, or, at the very least, some kind of guru to sort out the whole mess that is sport in Bristol.

Harsh? Perhaps. Fair? Certainly. A quick summary: Bristol City are 23rd of 24 teams in football's Championship (or 43rd in the country), while Rovers are 20th in League Two (88th in the country), and the city's rugby club – depending on results last night – are, at best, eighth in rugby's second tier, the Championship (20th in the country).

It always seems wrong to pick on Gloucestershire CCC – akin to bullying the weakest kid in the playground – but they have to be thrown on to the roll of dishonour, too, having recently finished 18th of the 18 counties that make up the County Championship.

Welcome to Bristol, which will next week become one of very few British cities to elect its own mayor, yet still has no sports teams who can put their respective balls into the goal, across the try-line or over the boundary on a more regular basis than their opponents.

This, remember, is not some tin-pot backwater, some land that time forgot. This is the eighth biggest city in the United Kingdom, the sixth biggest in England.

The individual and collective slides have been underway for a while now – with City, since losing in the 2008 Championship play-off final to Hull, finishing 10th, 10th, 15th and 20th, and Rovers, who finished 11th in League One in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, since being relegated and then finishing 13th in League Two.

As far as the rugby club is concerned, their third-place Premiership finish of 2006-07 has been followed by a general decline, albeit with two first-place Championship finishes (both of which were followed up with play-off defeats) along the way. Promotion this season looks unlikely, which would consign the club to a fifth Championship campaign in a row and put further daylight between themselves and the Premiership.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Bristol's current sporting malaise is that the names and faces have changed but the outcomes have stayed the same, if not got worse. Rovers, since Paul Trollope's exit in December 2010, have endured disappointing reigns from Dave Penney and Paul Buckle, while Mark McGhee has not been able to improve the club's fortunes.

At City, since Gary Johnson's departure in 2010, there have been managerial spells for Steve Coppell, Keith Millen and Derek McInnes, which have ranged from the bizarre to the uninspiring to the as-yet-unconvincing.

Similarly, at the rugby club, both Paul Hull and Liam Middleton have lacked the authority and the assuredness that came with Richard Hill's six-year tenure up to 2009.

So, to simplify: sport in Bristol was not in a particularly bad state – some way off the absolute elite but still punching its weight and with contented supporters – around 2007 and 2008, but at some stage around 2010, it started to fall away and the current decline and decay set in.

The last time Bristol City and Bristol Rovers both won on the same weekend, for example, was January 21, with City beating Doncaster and Rovers beating Cheltenham. The last time City, Rovers and the rugby club won on the same weekend was last year.

One argument is that lumping all the clubs together and generalising their woe is quite lazy. After all, City supporters probably feel better about their team's predicament because of the fact Rovers are struggling in the bottom tier of the Football League.

But the three are more closely connected than ever, with Steve Lansdown providing the common link. Lansdown owns City, who play at Ashton Gate, and also the rugby club, who rent their former home, the Memorial Stadium, off Rovers.

With both City and Rovers planning to move to new stadia, which would see Ashton Gate and the Memorial Stadium turned into Sainsbury's stores, the rugby club – certainly its supporters – will monitor news of the football clubs' progress on that front more closely than ever before.

I was in Nottingham last weekend – which is not, I grant you, an illuminating anecdote in itself – but while there I was struck by the quality of the sporting infrastructure.

On-field performance is one thing, and cricket aside, Nottingham is hardly a heavyweight sporting city. But facilities are another battle the Bristol sporting scene is failing to win – and some believe that, once that is corrected, the platform will be laid for an improvement in performance.

Within a stone's throw of each other in Nottingham are Notts County and Nottingham Rugby's Meadow Lane (all-seater stadium of 20,000 capacity), Forest's City Ground (all-seater stadium of 30,000 capacity) and Trent Bridge (a Test cricket venue with a capacity of 17,500). Also in Nottingham are the National Ice Centre, home of Nottingham Panthers, and a 10,000-capacity arena.

Nottingham is not bigger than Bristol – and it is not alone in getting its act together where sport is concerned, with unitary and governing bodies throughout the country seemingly willing and able to make things happen on this front.

Lansdown may be the most influential and wealthy man in Bristol sport, but he cannot be expected to bring the city up to scratch, in terms of achievement and facilities, on his own.

Nor, of course, can the new mayor. But whoever is elected by the people of Bristol next week will discover that, while there is so much of which to be proud about this great city, sport cannot be considered one of them at the moment.

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